Commonwealth Attorney Art Goff recommended that the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors repeal an ordinance that controls utility-scale renewable energy generating facilities, which received lukewarm support from the body and was hurried along at a July meeting.

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission met Wednesday night to hear Goff’s recommendation and to hear from members of the commission and Julie Bolthouse, the Piedmont Environmental Council's land use field representative for Fauquier County. The Planning Commission was present when the supervisors pushed the ordinance through in a 3-2 vote on July 7.

The law strictly regulates utility-scale solar — solar panels providing electricity to the power grid — requiring solar projects to be contained within a 100-acre contiguous area, limiting the parcel size to 500 acres, and capping the permit period at 20 years. 

Goff is recommending that the county do more research on locations best suited for projects and how utility-scale solar could impact the county, including potential ramifications to erosion and soil. 

Because county code previously had no ordinance restricting utility-scale solar projects, some supervisors were concerned they would be approached with an undesirable offer by commercial solar companies. But Goff wrote in his recommendation to the supervisors that he researched this issue and came “to the conclusion that there is no mandated requirement for localities to allow for commercial solar power generation for offsite transmission in a zoning ordinance.” 

“I just advise the board as to what they can do. But … they're gonna be awful to look at,” Goff said of utility-scale solar projects. “I've seen this in so many places, and they are truly obnoxious.” 

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act and amended other energy policies in April 2020, which requires Dominion Energy Virginia to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045 and Appalachian Power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. Goff wrote in his recommendation that while it is encouraged for localities to pursue solar energy alternatives, “it is not mandatory at this time.”

“I do think it's a little bit of dangerous territory, because of what you said about how we are trying to get to net zero,” Bolthouse said. “We have a General Assembly that is really pushing for that, and I think it’s dangerous territory to completely take [solar] off the table.”

Bolthouse said the biggest problems she saw with the ordinance passed by the supervisors were the size limitations and 20-year permit period. She noted that solar project scales are arbitrary, and the structures are more likely to be permanent and upgraded over time rather than decommissioned after 20 years. Bolthouse said it makes more sense to cap the number of solar panels instead of the acreage.

She also said that some localities use a phasing process, constructing 50 acres of solar panels at a time to evaluate how the structures affect the surrounding environment.

“The reason for that is [erosion and soil] control. That's the biggest impact on the site,” Bolthouse said. “It's how much dirt is coming off and how much runoff comes off from it, especially when you're dealing with slopes like you have, so [solar companies] want generally the property with flat land.” 

Stonewall-Hawthorne Commissioner Gary Light, who is also the senior vice president of energy and international development at ICF, a global consulting and advisory firm on energy policies, said that the solar industry is booming, calling it a “gold rush type circumstance.”

Bolthouse said Fauquier County has been approached by at least 18 companies from around the world inquiring about solar projects. 

“The food chain of the financing for this stuff right now is crazy,” Light said. “It's very likely that the economics are going to change. And I think, much as we should understand the economics, I think we should set realistic expectations that it's changing quickly.”

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